Why is my normally well behaved dog suddenly aggressive toward preteen and teenage boys?
September 9, 2010 8:41 AM   Subscribe

Why is my normally well behaved dog suddenly aggressive toward preteen and teenage boys? I have a 2 1/2 year old male german shepherd who is very well trained and usually extremely happy and well behaved. He is from a breeder that has 30 years of experience breeding working german shepherds and his easy going temperment is one of the things we love about him. Until a week ago I would not have hesitated to let any toddler or child pet him or interact with him. Suddenly he has exhibited an extreme dislike for preteen and teenage boys.

He tried to nip a boy in our house on the weekend and also tried to nip the boy that cuts our lawn (he really looked like he wanted to play - both times he nipped their shirts around the midsection). Upsetting behavior and he was corrected immediately. We have attended many, many obedience classes with the breeder who is also an excellent trainer (he is also really well socialized). Last night a group of teenage boys showed quite a bit of interest in him when we were out walking and asked if they could pet him. I said yes, told him to sit and invited one of them forward telling the boys not to put their hands over his hand and to pet him on his shoulder or under his chin. When the first boy came forward - the dog lunged at him, growling very deeply and tried to bite him. I'm sure he would have bitten him if I wasn't paying attention. Needless to say - no one is allowed to touch him now except for his family and we are consulting the veterinarian and the breeder. I would appreciate any thoughts or insight from the group. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is he neutered?
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:48 AM on September 9, 2010

From the little I know of animal psychology, this sounds like patterning: your dog is seeing teenage boys are a threat because he has been mistreated by a boy, and can't make the distinction between his attacker and others. (See: Temple Grandin and her work with animals). I am sorry if this suggestion starts to arouse suspicion of those around you, but it seems the most likely cause to me. If I am correct, treatment will be threefold: finding and removing the source of abuse; keeping the dog away from teenage boys, and very slowly re-training him to accept teenage males.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 8:49 AM on September 9, 2010 [5 favorites]

Is it possible that your dog may have been teased/hurt/scared by a teenage boy while out of your sight (in the yard or some such)? This IS the first week of school in many places - there are lots more teenagers roaming around a lot more frequently than there were a week prior, and I'm wondering if one of the little assholes - er, kids - could have traumatized your dog in some way.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:49 AM on September 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'll be interested to see what the vet says. I wouldn't be too surprised if it's not a pain response, although it sounds to me like it might be a protection response. Do you have a small child, has anyone been ill? Did I somehow misread that part?

Any chance any of these boys were wearing hats or glasses?
posted by TomMelee at 8:59 AM on September 9, 2010

I agree with Tom that pain could be a factor or it could be stress in general. As jul noted, school just started - is there more traffic on your street suddenly? Are your kids suddenly gone during the day? Have mornings gotten more hectic?
posted by maryr at 9:07 AM on September 9, 2010

The "teenage boy" thing may be confirmation bias. Have you exposed the dog to an equal range of pre-teen and teenage girls, individually and in groups?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:10 AM on September 9, 2010

The "teenage boy" thing may be confirmation bias. Have you exposed the dog to an equal range of pre-teen and teenage girls, individually and in groups?

And for that matter, adult men and women? My point is, have you exposed the dog to a range of ages and genders and it's only attacked boys, or has the dog just attacked everyone you've exposed it to, and they just happen to all be boys?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:23 AM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your anticipation of his aggression may actually be causing it. Dogs are pretty good at sensing you tense up.
posted by emilyd22222 at 9:43 AM on September 9, 2010

I am the person who owns the german shepherd in the question. It may be pertinent that I am also female.

The dog is not neutered, however he has never given us a moment of trouble in terms of behavior - he has never wandered or humped anything or been other than an incredibly sweet dog. This is a choice that we have made at this time - please don't attack me because my dog is not neutered.

The breeder agrees with many of you who suggest that teenage boys have been teasing him and he is responding accordingly. We are trying to locate the source of the teasing (if any) and also work on behavior modification with the dog.

The vet (who is an old country vet with tons of experience) thinks it is a protection response and that the dog is sensing some threat from the boys and trying to protect me. Maybe - the dog did seem more annoyed with the the boys than afraid of them.

And - yes we have exposed him to many preteen and teenage girls and he is gentle and sweet with every one of them.

What do you think - protection response or fear response?
posted by Minos888 at 9:47 AM on September 9, 2010

By all means consult a behaviorist. Note: veterinarians and breeders are not (necessarily) behaviorists.

Just throwing a few things out... I'll try to remind biscotti later.

First thing, there doesn't need to have been any mistreatment by a boy. Dogs can like and dislike things for reasons that don't have to do with abuse. And kids move differently than adults, in ways that it's not unusual for dogs to find distressing or weird. That doesn't mean that some boy (or girl) didn't mistreat your dog, but you shouldn't automatically assume that mistreatment has happened.

Second thing, at this point you and the dog have probably started training each other so that he's aggressive to boys. By now, you probably find it stressful when a boy approaches while you're walking the dog, and the dog can pick up on your stress. Which he might well misinterpret as "Mom-oid or Dad-oid is scared of this person! I should be too! I'll growl at them!"
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:59 AM on September 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sorry, Minos888, my question wasn't meant to be an attack! If you are a responsible dog owner, I don't think it's not a big deal.

I asked because I was thinking that your dog might somehow be able sense their high hormone levels and perceive them as a threat (of aggression and/or "pack" dominance), but that might be a little far fetched. I think most people have it correct; he may have been teased in the past and/or is sensing you tense up and reacting accordingly.

Good luck, and definitely speak to a behaviorist as others have suggested. The worst outcome of this situation is a tragic one!
posted by two lights above the sea at 10:14 AM on September 9, 2010

Er, That should be: If you are a responsible dog owner, I don't think it's a big deal.
posted by two lights above the sea at 10:15 AM on September 9, 2010

Some horrid young man who was tall and skinny and wore baseball caps mistreated my rescue Aussie. He probably was a dad of toddlers who weren't supervised around my Aussie either. I have never met any of these people, but when I adopted my dog, he had a clear and unmistakable reaction to men, in particular those who met the skinny young guy in baseball cap description, and some fear of young children too. It wasn't too hard to figure out what had happened.

I'd suggest you try a camera near the area where your dog stays when you aren't there, as I too suspect teasing/hurting by preteen/teenage boy or boys.

The following is what I learned from working with a wonderful animal behaviorist.

To recondition your dog, you want him to associate young boys with nothing but good things (which is why it is so important to figure out who is upsetting him.) To begin with, use a happy voice and say something positive like "Treats!" or "Cookies!" as soon as your dog sees a boy of the requisite age (not when you do, when your dog does.) Then provide your dog's most favorite treat, in a small amount. Don't respond with leash yanking or yelling if your dog acts upset -- just keep treating and go on by or let the boy pass. Over time, the distance will lessen that causes your dog to react, and eventually your dog will see a boy and look at you for treats. When that behavior is settled, see if you can get a very nice and kind boy of the right age to toss treats to your dog.

Eventually -- and it depends on your dog -- he may go back to viewing young boys normally. At worst, he will be viewing boys who don't come to close as a prompt for treats.

My dog is fine now with toddlers and skinny young men with baseball caps. It took time (about two years), patience, and a lot of positive reinforcement.
posted by bearwife at 10:18 AM on September 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

protection response or fear response?

Kinda the same thing, especially in this case. There's no way to distinguish the dog putting on a threat display because it feels itself threatened from it putting on a threat display because it feels you're being threatened. And it's hard to imagine a circumstance where it would feel that you're being threatened but it isn't.

I'm certainly not going to harsh on you for not neutering your dog. Leaving a male intact, at least through maturity, has... shit. Some manner of health benefits that I've forgotten.

But if you think about bites happening when the dog's level of stress or aggravation rises above some threshold, let's be clever and call it the bite threshold, then the dog's bollocks might matter.

We left our male vallhund intact until he was (IIRC) three or so, and in part neutered him because his balls weren't doing him any more favors. The hormones were making him nervous and fidgety and dog-aggressive in a way that he hadn't been (as much), and it was clear that he was getting more and more stressed and frustrated.

Anyway, your dog's hormone levels might be increasing his overall level of stress, frustration, or general aggravation so that it's easier for some other stimulus to push him over his bite threshold.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:22 AM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

IMHO, some boys around that age are just evil for the fun of it. I don't blame your dog.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 10:30 AM on September 9, 2010

This is the sort of thing that makes having dogs fun. :-)

We have a viszla that is absolutely terrified of any man in sunglasses. He's never been abused by anyone like that, and women and kids in sunglasses are fine - but he cannot tolerate a man in sunglasses for some reason.

People develop irrational and unfounded fears all of the time without any particular trauma driving it.

My point is that trying to find a reason may be fruitless. (I also want to say that from your description, it sounds to me like the dog was being playful. Every time a dog has been aggressive or mean with me, they've gone for the hamstrings or ankles and not center of mass. That said, you were there, I wasn't; but I just wanted to make that point)

As for what you can do - well, if you have some confidence in the dog and a willing couple of boys, as others have said, you can train him out of it. It won't be 100%, but it will give you more confidence to take him in public. Also, make sure you don't reinforce the behavior by being uptight or nervous in those situatons.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:40 AM on September 9, 2010

Long-time multi-GSD owner here. I'm guessing that the "nipping" behavior you described is natural German shepherd herding behavior. I'm not saying that it's okay for him to do that, just that it doesn't appear aggressive to me. When herding dogs herd livestock, they do those little nips to get the other animals where they want them. It's in their DNA. I'm certain you can make your dog stop that with some consistent correction.

Your dog is, I think, at his full sexual maturity. I'm guessing that's why he is more aggressive toward the boys and more protective/possessive of you. Dogs really know male and female even with humans. Our shepherds have never ever bitten anyone, but they make it really, really clear that they'd prefer that strangers not approach me when we're out. I do correct them for this, but they're never going to like strangers petting them. I generally think it's not a good idea to let strangers approach very protective dogs on leash. GSDs aren't crazy about that stuff.

You can never be too careful, though. I agree that visiting a trainer is a good idea, I just don't think your GSD's behavior is unusual for the breed. Good luck!
posted by WyoWhy at 11:00 AM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Two answers seem obvious to me:

First, that some wandering teenage boys probably threw rocks at him or whatever. Teenage boys are sadly known to do such things, particularly to a breed that is perceived as "macho."

Second, that the best starting place is to find a trustworthy and willing teenage boy, and make with the conditioning.

Teenage boys can often be located at the homes of neighbors, friends, and coworkers. Many of them like dogs and are kind and smart, and will be happy to help you with training for a nominal fee. (Whatever they charge for babysitting these days should, I think, be the right amount.)

Give the kid a big ol' pocketful of treats. Arrange to encounter him in various situations - at the front door, walking down the street, at the local park, in a grocery store parking lot. Have him dispense treats and kindness in equal amounts, check your dog when he nips or gets growly, and slowly push that boundary.

Dogs are pretty smart. He'll quickly figure out that teenage boys are the source of dog candy. Then you can go for the master class: odd hats, noisemakers, and skateboards.
posted by ErikaB at 1:39 PM on September 9, 2010

From my understanding, there is often a period in a dog's life (1-2 years) where the dog, formerly friendly and sociable, begins to exhibit fear or aggression towards things that previously didn't bother it. This happens to quite a few dogs, even those that are extremely well trained.

Patricia McConnell, dog behaviorist, mentions it on her blog from time to time and refers it to "juvenile onset shyness".

More on that here (where she theorizes its link to a dog's eye development.)

My own theory is that it is probably linked to a dog's changing hormones as it grows older.

In any case...lunging or biting at a child is an absolutely serious situation. You do not want to be messing around with this...please refer to a professional dog behaviorist who can see this problem in person. You may be able to get good references from the dog's breeder.

Until you do, please keep the dog away from all children and teens, for the dog's sake and theirs. A single misstep and you can be in for a visit to the hospital, vet, and/or a lawyer.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:23 PM on September 9, 2010

When I was growing up, my friend's german shepherd would get like that from time to time.

I grew up next door to that dog, so we're talking 12 years or so of experience? He'd be fine for a while (years) then he'd bite someone or lunge through the screen door to attack the mailman.

In fact, his only two targets were mailmen or teenage boys. Otherwise, he wasn't a mean dog.

Can't remember if that dog was neutered. A few times the attacks indicated sickness or discomfort, but not usually.

When I read your post, your dog's behavior did not sound unusual for the breed in my extensive personal experience. For many years I was smaller/weaker than that dog, so I probably kept a closer eye on his behavior and moods day-to-day than even my friend's parents did.

Sorry. I hope training helps.

I agree they are excellent protectors. I think that is part of the issue for shepherds. They're maybe a little too fierce at times.
posted by jbenben at 3:06 PM on September 9, 2010

He may not even have been teased directly; teenage boys are loud and they run around and wrestle with each other and do things like run up behind girls and make them squeal or pick them up and the girls playfully fight back. They might roughhouse with younger siblings (our dogs went nuts when my older brothers would swing me around in the air or pretend to throw me in the pool even though I loved it). Your dog may have a hard time realizing that all of this is In Good Fun and has simply decided that boys of that age are too rowdy and need to be herded and controlled a bit better. By him.

If you own a herding breed you need to have a really good handle on that behavior so that the dog always stops, drops and waits when you tell it to. Probably the dog is old enough that he's feeling a bit more independent so reinforcing your earlier training will help as will simply controlling his interactions with boys until he gets a bit better perspective on them.
posted by fshgrl at 4:24 PM on September 9, 2010

fshgrl makes a good point. When I was growing up, our GS was the grooviest, calmest dog of all time. Seriously, the dog would win zen awards.

Until the day I had a pool party and one of the boys picked me up and tossed me in the pool. I squealed...as teenage girls are wont to do, and before I came back up, my dog had jumped the 6 or 7 foot fence of his dog run, and had pinned the boy to the ground, and stood there with his teeth inches from the boy's throat until I broke water and yelled "Kennel!". At which point the dog got off the boy, gave him one last warning growl, padded over to his run, and stood by the gate until I let him back into the run. Up to that point, we hadn't known he could go over that fence.

After that, the dog never trusted teenage boys and was openly hostile if boys came near either me or my sister. He never attacked anyone, but my parents laughed that the best nanny in the world was that dog, because no boy would ever come closer than a foot or two to us.

They're very protective dogs.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 6:54 PM on September 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

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